Christie Huck, Executive Director of the City Garden Montessori Charter School in St. Louis, Missouri, presented a version of the below testimony at a U.S. congressional hearing, “The Spirit of Brown: Steps Congress Must Take to Address Segregation and Improve Equity of Opportunity in K-12 Public Schools,” on July 12. Originally from Ferguson, Missouri, the author testified on her experience opening an integrated charter school in Missouri and the importance of such racial and socioeconomic integration as the nation confronts the continued murders of young black Americans.
In May 2014, researchers from Washington University and Saint Louis University held a convening with leaders from across the St. Louis region to share their findings from “For the Sake of All,” a comprehensive study of the health and wellbeing of African-Americans in the St. Louis area. They shared many devastating statistics, but the most poignant was this: Individuals who are born in the Jeff VanderLou neighborhood in North St. Louis City can expect to live eighteen years less than individuals who are born less than ten miles away, in the inner-ring suburb of Clayton.
When I was in my early twenties, I rode my bike from the first neighborhood, where I lived, to the second neighborhood, where I worked. These communities are a bike ride away from one another. However, the Jeff VanderLou neighborhood is almost completely poor and African-American, and Clayton is almost completely white and affluent.
On August 9, 2014, three short months later, a young man,
Michael Brown, was killed by a police officer and left to lay in the street for several hours, under blistering heat, while authorities figured out what to do. It was unclear why Michael had been shot, and his friends, family and neighbors began to gather, unsettled, traumatized, asking for answers and receiving none.
I will never forget seeing Leslie McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother, on the news that evening, being held up by her husband, and desperately screaming, “You know how many black men graduate? Not many! Because you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like, [nothing], don’t got nothing to live for anyway.”
That night, and for months following that night, our region was catapulted into trauma and violence. Everything imploded. The impacts of decades—centuries—of segregation reached a boiling point. I never would have imagined my home town of Ferguson, Missouri as the place where a national movement would begin. But Ferguson
is the result of our intentional and unintentional decisions and actions over the past century.
Two months after Michael Brown was killed, I was sitting on my back porch in the Shaw neighborhood of South St. Louis City with a friend. We heard several shots, and then several more shots. We froze. Everyone in our region was experiencing either acute trauma or PTSD, including us. We went inside to see if anything was being posted on social media about what had just happened. Within the hour we learned that another young person, VonDerrit Myers, who lived two blocks from me, had been shot and killed by an off-duty police officer who worked as a security guard for the affluent street within our neighborhood. I am quite sure I have seen both the security guard and VonDerritt many times when walking through my neighborhood. I cannot imagine any reason that VonDerritt would have been chased down, blocks away from the street the guard was patrolling, and shot to death.
This again opened the floodgates. This time our immediate community was directly impacted. The shooting took place just three blocks from our school. Many of our parents expressed the need to have space to process all of the emotions and grief they were experiencing. We opened our building that Friday night for the first of what would become monthly gatherings to talk about race, privilege, segregation, equity, and community.
Fix the education system so that our kids have more to live for. Stop pushing them down so that they feel like nothing.
City Garden Montessori Charter School Executive Director Christie Huck awarding graduates. Source: City Garden Montessori Charter School.
When I sent out the notice about the gathering we planned, I got a call from a local political leader. She warned me about “fueling the fire” and directed me to make people settle down and stop protesting. In an uncharacteristic moment of impassioned anger, I responded that none of us should settle down, that this was one of my kids, that he had been failed by our systems his entire life, and that he had just experienced the ultimate failure of our systems. That his family, friends and our community are sick and tired. You tell your police chief and his officers, I said, to stop killing our babies. Stop shooting at them. Fix the education system so that our kids have more to live for. Stop pushing them down so that they feel like nothing.
Fixing Education through Integration: the City Garden Montessori School Model
In 2006, the St. Louis Public School District was about to lose its accreditation. Proficiency rates for children in my neighborhood district school— the student body of which was 96 percent black and 92 percent free or reduced lunch eligible—were 14 percent in math and 17 percent in language. Meanwhile, the mostly white and mostly middle class parochial school up the street had just received a
Blue Ribbon Schools recognition.
Though the impacts of segregation and the incredible inequities that accompany segregation have re-entered public discourse in recent years, they are not new.
City Garden’s charter school was formed by parents, in response to the devastating realities of segregation in the City of St. Louis. As black, white, and brown parents, and as parents of black, white and brown children, we decided to change the trajectory for our own children, and for our neighborhoods. We knew that we needed to help lead the change we wanted to see.
Source: City Garden Montessori Charter School.
Many of us had moved to the Shaw neighborhood because of its racial and economic diversity. Many of us had also enrolled our children in a neighborhood Montessori preschool. We talked the founder of the preschool into considering expansion into the elementary grades. We began to learn about charter schools, local politics, funding, legal issues. Over two years we met in each other’s living rooms and in the neighborhood park to create the vision and plans for City Garden Montessori Charter School. A group of social workers, artists, activists, teachers and health care professionals, we didn’t have a lot going for us—except determination and a vision of something better for our children and other children in St. Louis.
Now, ten years later, we operate the most successful—and most racially and economically integrated—charter school in St. Louis. Our results are on par with the best suburban districts’ results, including Clayton. We are regularly asked to consider replication and to share “best practices.”
Source: City Garden Montessori Charter School.
Incredibly, we are becoming “victims” of our own success, in some ways. When we opened, we established a geographic boundary, or attendance zone, that was about 40 percent white and 60 percent African-American, and about 60 percent low-income. We did this in order to create an integrated school. There are no other policy mechanisms for charter schools to create integration in Missouri. Because of our academic outcomes, we are now attracting more and more white, middle- and upper-income families into our neighborhoods. This is unprecedented in the City of St. Louis, where population loss—and specifically, a declining white population—has occurred for decades. And yet, it presents a challenge for us. We exist to increase access to excellent education for historically marginalized children, and to defy the pervasive segregation of our city and region.
What we are experiencing highlights the realities about segregation, and why it happens: affluent families, who in St. Louis are statistically more likely to be white, are able to exercise choice regarding where they live and where they send their children to schools, whereas poor and working class families, who in St. Louis are statistically more likely to be African-American or another minority, are not able to exercise choice regarding where they live and where they send their children to schools.
The segregation of our schools and our neighborhoods will not change without policy to interrupt these trends and to create alternatives.
At City Garden, we are working to establish both a
Coalition for Neighborhood Diversity and Affordable Housing to explore policy mechanisms and other ways to support and sustain the diversity of our neighborhoods, and a statewide coalition to advocate for controlled choice and other mechanisms to support school integration. I invite and implore you to join us, and others across the United States, to leverage your spheres of influence to affect change.
Source: City Garden Montessori Charter School.
I want to be clear that I am not advocating for integration just for the sake of diversity. I am
calling for integration because it leads to equity. As long as our schools are segregated by race and income, our most vulnerable children will continue to be written off and denied opportunities to thrive and live out their full potential. They will experience more addiction, higher rates of incarceration, experience more violence, have lower high school and college graduation rates and—most devastatingly—lower life expectancy. This does not just hurt the children and families who are directly impacted—it damages our communities and our society as a whole.
The time is now to take strong, urgent action. Our nation will be stronger and more productive when all of our children have access to freedom and opportunity.
Cover Photo: City Garden Montessori Charter School Facebook.